Genomic passports could be key to the future of health care, Abu Dhabi conference hears

Experts weigh in on the benefits of DNA sequencing and how artificial intelligence is changing health care

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DNA sequencing could help create “genomic passports” which will specify the genetic health risks for individuals and allow for personalised prevention and treatments, an Abu Dhabi conference heard on Monday.

That was the message from experts speaking at the opening day of the Abu Dhabi Global Healthcare Week (ADGHW) on Monday.

The UAE launched a strategy last year to map the DNA of every Emirati as the country looked to provide personalised medical care for every citizen.

The purpose of the project is to create tailored healthcare strategies in the future, and to introduce more preventive medicine to the UAE.

This passport will enable us to predict diseases and intervene preemptively within the healthcare system, shifting from treating diseases to treating individuals
Albarah El Kani, M42

“This passport will enable us to predict diseases and intervene preemptively within the healthcare system, shifting from treating diseases to treating individuals,” said Albarah El Kani, senior vice president of operations at healthcare tech firm M42.

Other experts speaking at the event also mapped out the benefits.

“Genome screening offers more comprehensive screening than traditional methods, allowing for earlier interventions and more personalised health plans,” said Dr Duaa Al Masri, consultant paediatric neonatologist at Danat Al Emarat Women and Children's Hospital.

“It's crucial not only for immediate health care but also for family planning and research.”

Dr Al Masri was speaking during a panel discussion about the rise of genome sequencing in the healthcare sector.

“The speed of generating genomic data has significantly increased, allowing us to diagnose critically ill patients within hours,” said Dr Fatima Al Jasmi, chair of the department of genetics and genomics at the UAE University College of Medicine and Health Sciences.

“Our focus is on the patient and their family's well-being, using genomic data to tailor treatments, including nutritional therapies and vitamins.”

Artificial enhancements

Artificial intelligence is creating opportunities for the healthcare sector that would previously have been impossible, the Abu Dhabi conference also heard on Monday morning.

The potential of AI is so vast that it could completely transform how health care is delivered, said Mariam Al Mheiri, Head of International Affairs at the Presidential Court and former Minister of Climate Change and Environment.

“Instead of focusing on increasing the number of hospitals, we should aim to reduce their necessity,” said Ms Al Mheiri.

“This means utilising AI to enable care in the comfort of your own home, a significant mindset shift towards disrupting the sector.”

Advancements in the field of genomic research were also transforming health care, said Ms Al Mheiri.

The UAE’s National Genome Strategy was last year hailed by scientists as one of the most ambitious programmes yet to analyse the genetic material of a country’s population.

More than 400,000 citizens in the UAE were reported to have submitted cheek swabs or blood samples for analysis, with the aim being to collect one million samples.

From each sample, automated sequencing machines are able to produce a profile of that individual’s genome, their complete set of genetic material.

Ms Al Mheiri said the advancements in genomic sequencing now takes only about seven hours and costs about $200 to complete, compared to previously when it took several months and thousand of dollars.

“This technological leap allows for the identification of potential health issues before symptoms appear, shifting the focus towards prevention and the role of AI in fostering healthier lives”, she said.

AI was helping people to not just be healthier than before but also to live longer, added Ms Al Mheiri.

“Longevity is now a major theme. We are now able to reprogramme genes to make you appear 20 years younger – it's truly unbelievable,” she said.

“With AI and tech advancements, we are not just looking at health but at longevity as well.”

Updated: May 14, 2024, 9:28 AM